Friday, June 20, 2014

Chapter 2 - Young Alfred: Part 7 - "The First and Greatest Frustration"

Korzybski: A Biography (Free Online Edition)
Copyright © 2014 (2011) by Bruce I. Kodish
All rights reserved. Copyright material may be quoted verbatim without need for permission from or payment to the copyright holder, provided that attribution is clearly given and that the material quoted is reasonably brief in extent.

Alfred turned 18 in the summer of 1897 and may have graduated from the realschule earlier that year or in the spring of 1898 (no record exists of when he actually did so and in later years Korzybski could not recall the exact year). Alfred’s great ambition had been to become a mathematician, a physicist, or lawyer. So it came as a shock to him, around this time, when he realized that his parents’ choice to place him in the realschule, rather than in a classical gymnasium, would prevent him from entering a university program in any of his favored professions. The fact of the matter remained: he had not studied Latin or Greek. Facility in both languages was necessary at that time to enter a university program in mathematics, science, or law in Poland, the rest of Russia, or anywhere else in Europe. His parents had wanted him to become an engineer, like his father. They believed, in particular, that with the growing chemical industry, Alfred would be able to make good money as a chemical engineer. They had enrolled him in the realschule to put him on a track for an engineering career, not for the professions he most desired.

Alfred’s discovery that he couldn’t get into a university became what he later called "the first and greatest frustration I ever had."(30) Despite his middling grades, he felt that he had a decent background in mathematics and science, as well as literature and the humanities. He spoke and read French, German and Russian well and thus had linguistic access to the major languages, other than English, in which scientific research was conducted at the end of the 19th Century. As far as he was concerned, he definitely had what it took to do decent work as a mathematician, physicist, or a lawyer. Yet, as far as he knew, he would not be able to find employment researching mathematics or physics anywhere in Europe with just an engineering degree and not a university PhD. And to become a lawyer, he also needed Latin, Greek, and university.

Alfred at the Realschule in Warsaw, around 18 years old

Did Korzybski overestimate the problem of pursuing a mathematical/scientific research career with just a Polytechnic degree? After all, such a degree did not ultimately stop Albert Einstein (also born in 1879). On the other hand, even Einstein had initial difficulties finding what he considered suitable employment after graduating from the Swiss Federal Polytechnic in Zurich. Einstein could only get temporary jobs in a technical school and in tutoring before finding a position as a clerk in the Swiss Patent Office. Even after he had produced his epoch-making papers of 1905 (written while working at the patent office) he had to work as a Privatedozent, a poorly paid lecturer, at the University of Bern before he finally obtained his first professorial post at the University of Zurich in 1909, with pull from supporters there. Alfred was probably not exaggerating his own obstacles. 

He looked into the possibility of getting tutored in Latin and Greek. Since he knew French well, he had some entry point into Latin, but Greek, was simply…well, Greek to him. He would need more time to become proficient in it. "In the meantime", as he described it later, “life was pressing. My parents were getting old. Father was getting ill; father was retired. I became more and more important in family management.”(31) And though they still remained "comfortable" financially, finances were becoming more and more a concern. Alfred just couldn’t see getting side-tracked to study Latin and Greek for possibly two more years to fulfill what he considered a useless formal requirement. So he decided. He simply would not waste his time studying them. He would become an engineer.

You may download a pdf of all of the book's reference notes (including a note on primary source material and abbreviations used) from the link labeled Notes on the Contents page. The pdf of the Bibliography, linked on the Contents page contains full information on referenced books and articles. 
29. Korzybski 1947, p. 450. 

30. Korzybski 1947, p. 52.

31. Korzybski 1947, p. 53.

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